Sevda’s first album success came with ‘A Flower in Bloom” and it was a masterpiece. She’s from Azerbaijan on the banks of the Caspian sea, and her voice effortlessly fills the broad range between mugam and jazz. Expect to find husky, blues-like tones, caress some earth stopping lamentations of traditional mugam music. Full, expressive direct and beautiful emotion transmitted at virtuoso level at you the listener. This is an album that will escape the radar of Fado music fans, but will surely be loved in the same way.
If something sounds familiar about Afel Bocoum’s sound, you only have to look at who tutored him for clues. A member of Ali Farka Touré’s “ASCO” group from the age of 13, provides all the evidence one would need to pin the artist to the groove, but he’s grown beyond that and gone on to become a star in his own right.
Afel’s first album, Alkibar, was released ten years ago and it remains one of my favourite of all time. He describes his playing style as “Arabo-Muslim…in the Great River tradition” and this was certainly a sentiment captured on first album which meandered through the daily activities of life on the Niger river.
In the ten year period since the first release, Afel has collaborated on a number of music projects, most notably Ali Farka Touré’s last album, Savanne.
In Tabital Pulaaku, Afel takes us on a much broader musical journey. He still remains firmly within the African blues genre, but listeners of Tinariwen, Ba Cissoko and Viex Farka Touré are going to enjoy this album, as it’s much more accessible to the new African blues converts, when seen alongside the earlier work.
Melodies and harmonies across the instruments are much more defined in Tabital Pulaaku, and the album transmits a warm energy and timelessness that is, for me, a fundamental component of a successful African blues album.
One of the best tracks on the album is not surprisingly the title track, Tapital Pulaaku. In this we hear Afel’s distinctive voice pushed front stage, and then around the one and a half minute mark, a shift in tempo that reveals a head-bobbing groove, delivering all the expression and relief that African music provides to its fans.
This is an album to be savoured and enjoyed like a fine wine.
Born in Paris but with Lagos, Nigeria, called home since the age of two, comes Asa (pronounced Asha), an artist with an album so refined, you’d think it was her greatest hits, but it’s not, it’s in fact her first! She’s been given a huge amount of profile on the World music circuit, but that alone is not deserving of the attention this artist should be receiving, as she’s a talent of subliminal quality.
A voice that harks back to the days of Tracey Chapman, but combines this with the dryness and subtlety of Tanita Tikaram is just the opening images this artist conjures on a first listen to her album. The first track ‘Jailer’ has the bassline and uproaring goodness of a track by the late Bob Marley. With Reggae, souful and acapella grooves, this is album that lifts the soul and takes you to better place.
Tracks such as ‘360degrees’ offer more by the way of reflection for listener, while the acapella on ‘Subway’ will just make you stop whatever you’re doing to enjoy it. The most airplay has been laid on the track ‘Fire on the mountain’, but it’s not a representative sample of this artists calibre and dynamism.
You need to go and buy this album!
The Garifuna people are descendants of shipwrecked African slaves that intermarried with Carib and Arawak Indians of the Caribbean. The people can be found in small villages along the Caribbean in the countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
In the face of globalization the Garifuna are trying to maintain their culture and traditions in the face of this change. Because this is an album featuring a collective there are a superb range of voices covering different tones and transmitting different emotions.
This female collective uses electric guitar as well as percussion typical to the Caribbean islands. The results are a sound with a softness and quality, and the fusion of African and Caribbean styles makes the album stand out from the crowd. The album’ best track “Hattie” recounts the story of Hurrican Hattie in 1961. It’s complete and utter spine-tingling material, Sarita providing the vocals and a backing featuring a rolling guitar riff and which then leads into Pulp Fiction style basslines.
I’m going to begin with a dedication to the Gambian artist responsible for introducing me to the Kora, his name, Basiru Suso. His album, ‘Suso Kunda’, was for me an epic journey, it shares a timelessness in the same way that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos do. I don’t think the album was ever commercially released, save for those few copies on display in London’s Leicester Square, but I’m sure he’d be only to happy to answer any enquiries you might have about his music. Basiru’s music is very much free from additives, you get the Kora, and perhaps a plucked bass as backing, and that’s about it, which is just what Kora diehards tend to enjoy the most.
To arrive at Basiru or the more traditional forms of Kora playing, you’ll first need a gentle introduction or you might get scared off. There are usually musical bridges that one comes across moving from one musical style to another.
For example, I arrived at the Kora via this route,
70s Funk -> House Music -> Drum and Bass -> Reggae -> Dub -> African Blues -> Kora
Because everyone’s music history is different, to try and propose an exact starting point is always going to be difficult. So I’ll review the albums here, I think act best as musical bridges, and hope that you identify one that matches your own personal music history.
Ali Farka Touré & Tomani Diabaté – ‘In the Heart of the Moon’
As I type out the name of this album I smile. Ali was the original African bluesman and Toumani shows he can work the Kora like no other. In the Hotel Mande, overlooking the Niger River these two legends came together and recorded one of the singularly most inspired recordings in music history. It’s just pure talent improvising, enjoying and sharing a fusion of guitar and Kora, like no other. It’s 12 tracks of sublime relaxation, reflection and positivity. You buy this CD because if you’re the type of person that likes to be sent on a journey when listening to music, and it’s because of that, that you have a great music system for hearing it. The recording does not disappoint.
I don’t know if I can actually beat that opener but I’m going to try…
Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra
The year following the release of ‘In the Heart of the Moon’, Toumani stepped up to the stage with his Symmetric Orchestra to show that, apart from being able to sound mellow, the Kora could also rock just as hard the discotheque. The album is a fusion of funk, and other urban rhythms born out of 10 years of Friday night jam sessions in Bamako’s Hogon Club. It’s what makes the album a much more upbeat and energized affaire then the calming ‘In the Heart of the Moon’. Toumani shares with us songs that cover a complete range of styles, from the slower, ‘Mali Sadio’, which tells the story of a Hippopotamus that drinks from a lake, through to knee bouncing grooves, sweeping backing vocals, and Toumani’s electric Kora playing (as heard on the track, ‘Single’).
Ba Cissoko – Electric Griot Land
What happens when you plug the Kora into guitar effects boxes? The answer lies with Ba Cissoko, who’ve done just this. This album makes the use of background sounds, and other forms of artificial noise to add great depth and better imagery to their music. The group also performed as support act for Femi Kuti, so their skills are noted at the highest levels. I’m recommending the earlier of their two albums as this is the stronger of the two offerings.
When you take a track like ‘Silani’, on which K’Naan also collaborated, you’ve got to ask why such an album and such talent can’t get high profile on the international stage.
3Ma – Rajery, Ballake Sissoko and Driss El Maloumi
A collaboration between a Madagascan, Malian, and Moroccan provides the cultural context for this cross-border collaboration which that brings together this trio of musicians each armed with their country’s national instrument. Driss brings the Arab lute, Rajery the Valiha (a bamboo tubular zither) and our friend Ballake, the jaw dropping Kora. It’s around the four minute mark of the opening track, ‘Anfass’, that you hear the first fruits born of this beautiful fusion of cultures played out by these very gifted musicians.
Rokia Traoré – Tchamantché
As we are building a list of ‘bridging albums’, I’m including an artist in the list that does not actually play the Kora. However, the Kora features so poignantly on her latest album, that I’m including it as it will no doubt encourage listeners of classical and jazz to be brought closer to the Kora. The twist of the Kora in this album is in its combination with Rokia’s voice – always one to bring a cold chill and edginess to her performance that will send shivers down your spine. If you liked Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew back in the 1960s, you’re going to like this one too.
So that ends our introduction to the Kora. I urge you to pick one of the albums above, take a small financial risk and dive in, this is a music you need to hear.
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I discovered the Kora 8 years ago while walking through London’s busy Leicester Square. As I was drawn towards the sound, I expected to find a group of musicians playing, instead I discovered just one musician with a Kora in his hands. Hearing it that day stopped me dead in my tracks, and since then I’ve never looked back.
Moving forward a few years and it was the collaboration between one of Africa’s greatest bluesman, Ali Farka Toure (now deceased), and the explosive talents of a certain Toumani Diabate, that brought to the international stage an instrument that’s been a staple in traditional West African music for centuries.
Read on and be awestruck, because here comes the mighty Kora!
What is the Kora?
The Kora (spelt Cora in French) has 21 heavenly strings and its sound is most closely aligned with the harp, an instrument that has its origins in Egypt, the same continent as the Kora’s birthplace. Principally it’s played in the countries of Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia, where artists including Mamadou Diabate, Ba Cissoko, Baba Sissoko, Mory Kanté, Issa Bagayogo, Alhaji Bai Konté, and Tata Dindin Jobarté, bring this instrument to life.
And what a life it has.
Musically the Kora has a range of three octaves and its defining beauty is its ability to operate on many different levels. It can play high, middle, and low notes just like many others, but the Kora can allow a gifted musician to play across all 3 octaves simultaneously. This short video, featuring Toumani Diabate, offers a great example of what I mean.
This is the most amazing instrument, and in the next post we’ll reveal the best albums to introduce you it’s magic.
Have you been spellbound by this instrument too? Please share your experiences with the rest of the TT community below.